2007 DISH Winter Dining Guide » Dining Guide

The Essentials

The City Paper's recommendations for dining out in Charleston

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You can hardly walk a block in the Holy City without catching a whiff of something good cooking. We are a city of cooks and eaters. Few places can boast such a dense concentration of purveyors and preparers as Charleston. It's no surprise that competition is fierce and that even the established and experienced find no guarantees in opening new restaurants. It is all the more honorable then to be noticed, recognized as having achieved a certain level of culinary excellence. Those who excel in Charleston do so in extraordinary fashion, to the citizens' ultimate benefit and delight. When we eat out, these are the places we frequent; they are the stalwarts of the current gastronomic landscape. Some are classics, some are newcomers, but all are delicious. Each represents the efforts that collectively make Charleston the best spot for food lovers in the South.

39 Rue de Jean
French
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 39 John St. 722-8881
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

We have trouble classifying Rue de Jean, as it can be so many things, depending on the occasion. That happens when you wrap an exceptional restaurant around one of the most splendid bars in town. "Rue," as some call it, helped lead the upper King Street revitalization, but it retains all of the glamour that made it a star in the first place. Whether you go for the outstanding mussels or just to watch the beautiful people while sipping champagne at the bar, Rue de Jean is a one-stop shop for an entire evening of revelry.

A.C.'s Bar and Grill
Pubs/Taverns
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 467 King St. 577-6742; Mt. Pleasant. 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 849-2267.
Lunch, Dinner, Sunday Brunch, and
Late Night

A.C.'s is an old favorite, with quirky bartenders, plenty of pool tables and video games, and great, low-down bar food that suits the paper-lined baskets and cheap beer perfectly. Their rather inspired bar menu features choices like the Zen Sampler and a Garden Philly and even healthy sides like celery and carrots. Their downtown Sunday brunch has become a popular hangover cure for the masses, with such incredibly hearty combos as chicken and waffles and hashbrown casserole.

Al di La
Italian
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 25 Magnolia Road. 571-2321
Dinner

The word "trattoria" means something very specific to Italian food, and Chef John Marshall understands its connotations very well. Al di La, a favorite haunt of numerous "star chefs" around town, serves up delicious handmade fare at more than reasonable prices and never fails to deliver an authentic, soulful experience. The dining room has been packed from day one (reservations are almost always necessary), so Marshall created a new wood-oven wine bar, or "bacaro" (which never accepts reservations), next door to handle the overflow. When that filled up with eager diners, he ripped up the outdoor plants and installed two patio areas beneath the stars. One day he will realize that with food this good, at these prices, in such a beautiful space, he could fill a Super Wal-Mart.

Amazon Grill
Steakhouse
Entrées $15-$20
Goose Creek. 1316 Redbank Road. 569-6275
Lunch and Dinner

You like meat? Amazon Grill is for you. An all-you-can-eat Brazilian rodizio owned by Brazilians, run by Brazilians, and frequented mainly by Brazilians; the place is for real. The spit-roasted meat makes the rounds, freshly carved onto your plate until you say uncle. Ribeyes, sirloins, lamb legs, even chicken hearts fly off the fire -- and the accompanying buffet tables showcase authentic South American fare. It is very family-friendly and, at under 20 bucks a head, a fine place to feed an army.

Amuse
Tapas
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1720 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. 573-8778
Dinner (closed Sun. and Mon.)

This hip bistro tucked in the rear of an old shopping center off Sam Rittenberg Boulevard just might be the city's most unsung hero. The Trez family's dedication to their dream pays off with deliciously prepared Mediterranean-inspired food at an unmatched price. The addition of live jazz in 2006 was icing on the cake. An emphasis on interesting wine and diverse menu selections keeps this hidden gem at the top of the West Ashley scene. One taste confirms that they intend to stay there.

Andolini's Pizza
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 82 Wentworth St. 722-7437; West Ashley. 1117 Savannah Hwy. 225-4743; Mt. Pleasant. 414 W. Coleman Blvd. 849-7437; James Island. 967 Folly Road. 576-7437.
Lunch and Dinner

The original remains very much the best; thousands of College of Charleston students cannot be wrong. They pack this scruffy downtown legend nightly, sucking down cold beers with huge slices of pie and fat, steaming calzones. If the college crowd gets you down, you can always head out to one of the other Andolini's locations in Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, or James Island. The pie is still divine, and with more room to spread out, you can even bring the kids.

Arlaana
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $15-$20
Daniel Island. 259 Seven Farms Dr.
471-2400
Dinner (Closed Sun.)

You know this place represents a unique experience as soon as you spy the trees out front. Lighting up the night sky with multiple hues of iridescent color, the creative lighting scheme continues into the dining room, revealing a tiled space as much reminiscent of a spa as a fine dining restaurant -- and with the unrivaled personable attention of Arlaana (the eponymous owner) and crowd, one will feel just as pampered. The menu features some unique samplers of charcuterie and cheese as well as an innovative and well-prepared entrée selection.

Art's Bar and Grill
More Than a Sandwich
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 413 Coleman Blvd. 849-3040
Lunch, Dinner, and Late Night

Art's is not a fancy joint, but that's just the point. They serve lunch and dinner specials seven days a week in an atmosphere that mixes local musical talent and classic arcade games in the same quirky, well-worn space. Great fried fish baskets and big burgers can satisfy the largest of appetites. The people are cool, the beer is cold, and the location is convenient -- all good reasons why this Coleman Boulevard establishment has been voted Best Bar in Mt. Pleasant for years by City Paper readers.

Atlanticville Restaurant
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20-$25
Sullivan's Island. 2063 Middle St. 883-9452
Dinner and Sunday Brunch

A nice spot to munch on Sullivan's, Atlanticville takes the seafood traditions of the coast and crosses them into a Lowcountry and Southeast Asian hybrid cuisine. Interesting, exotic flavors inform the classics; seared tuna is served in a carrot-ginger curry and fried calamari dresses up in a spicy gastric concoction. Grits are piled high with new twists on old ideas, making the trip a guaranteed adventure.

Basil
Asian/Indian
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 460 King St. 724-3490
Lunch and Dinner

On any given night, people line the sidewalk on upper King, jostling for a seat in this very reasonably priced Asian hotspot. It is the favorite lunch counter of food critic Jeff Allen's 83-year-old conservative grandmother, who likes her ham boiled and her oatmeal plain but her spicy "Beef Basil" over rice. Get there early and steal a spot at the bar overlooking all the hot wok action in the glass-encased kitchen. For $15, there's no better show in town.

Blossom Café
Seafood
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 171 East Bay St. 722-9200
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

Locals and tourists alike return often to sample Blossom's classic "nouveau Southern" cuisine. For lunch or dinner, the expansive menu boasts delightful seafood entrées and hand-prepared pizzas with the freshest of ingredients and a Lowcountry style. A favorite for business lunches or a dinner out with friends, Blossom remains a steady choice.

The Boathouse
Seafood
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 549 E. Bay St. 577-7171; Isle of Palms. 101 Palm Blvd. 886-8000
Dinner and Sunday Brunch

The Boathouses -- both of them -- are popular spots and offer something more than a reliable seafood menu that will make those in search of simple fried shrimp as happy as those who prefer a more sophisticated approach. The IOP location's perk is a killer view on the top floor, with a cozy bar and plenty of seats. IOP's city sister takes a slightly different approach to atmosphere, with a lovely covered porch that's heated in winter and offers live entertainment year-round. The interior sushi bar and "see and be seen" happy hour offer friendly, competent bartenders, a reliable selection of raw and steamed oysters, sushi, wine, cocktails, and weekly specials that can't be beat.

Boulevard Diner
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 409 Coleman Blvd. 216-2611
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner (closed Sun.)

Just out Coleman Boulevard, on the right, sits a great little slice of Americana in East Cooper, a classic Alice's "Kiss My Grits!" type of place with food to die for. Big brawny breakfasts and filling dinners fly out of the kitchen for a song, proving that steak and eggs in Charleston don't have to be overpriced. The next time you're broke and jonesing for that fried eggplant and blue cheese sandwich, this is your place -- but after recently being featured on the Food Network, you're going to have to get there early to beat the rest of the crowd.

Bowens Island Restaurant
Seafood
Entrées $5-$10
James Island. 1870 Bowens Island Road. 795-2757
Lunch and Dinner

Before a devastating fire in the fall, people had been shucking and sucking creekside for over 60 years. While the "oyster room" and its inherent graffiti may be in a charred heap, the spirit of Bowens is not. Owner Robert Barber has already rebuilt the kitchen and is serving up oysters on the back decks and dock while the dining room gets rebuilt. Read Robert's take on the fire and the legacy of Bowens on the back page of this issue and then get on out there and be a part of the enduring tradition of Bowens Island.

Capriccio's
Italian
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 1034 Chuck Dawley Blvd. 881-5550
Dinner

When we're in the mood for lip-smacking, family-style Italian fare, Capriccio's routinely fits the bill. This place has been serving up delicious Italian food for years and has become a neighborhood favorite, with food that draws a crowd from miles around. People from Meggett to Awendaw line up to experience the best baked spaghettis and lasagnas in town, smothered in cheese just like your nonna made it. We go for the mussels -- big, plump, and juicy with a fistful of fresh thyme on top and a rich butter sauce beneath -- simple perfection.

Central Grille
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $15-$20
Summerville. 114 Central Ave. 821-7151
Lunch and Dinner (Closed Sun.)

This newest addition to the "short-central" street area of downtown Summerville brings a badly needed measure of upscale bistro food into the district. With a cool, modern interior and a well-prepared menu of eclectic offerings, the place can satisfy a wide range of tastes -- perfect for family dining. With food like this, it seems Summerville may have finally turned the corner on the culinary front, with something besides The Woodlands worthy of a drive out from the city.

Chai's Lounge & Tapas
Tapas
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 462 King St. 722-7313
Dinner

Perhaps the swankiest addition to the downtown tapas tsunami that overtook the city in 2005, this upper King hot spot offers a wide variety of Asian-inspired plates and one of the hippest bar scenes in town. An upscale sister to its popular predecessor Basil, the Thai restaurant next door also owned by Henry and Chai Eang, at Chai's one can munch on tuna sashimi, plea (a Cambodian-style steak tartare), and green papaya salad while sipping champagne on an overstuffed leather sofa or out on the fabulous new outdoor patio beside the trend-setting people who tend to gather here.

Charleston Grill
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 224 King St. 577-4522
Dinner

This is the place that started it all -- proving that urban redevelopment is not as evil as some would have you believe. What is now the Charleston Place Hotel complex anchored the revitalization of the entire peninsula above Broad Street, which is to say that almost every fine dining establishment in town owes its very existence to the pioneering that took place in this location. This elegant showpiece of a restaurant effortlessly choreographs an exemplary experience, weaving Southern influences within the framework of classically-inspired cuisine and impeccable service (they are one of the few establishments in town that can correctly decant a wine). True to their pioneering spirit, and pushed forward by the success of other fine dining establishments in town, they are currently closed for an extensive renovation that promises a fresh start in a new, less formalized space and an updated take on Lowcountry cuisine. We will be watching, waiting, and tasting for what promises to be the big news of the coming year.

Charleston's Bookstore Café
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 1039 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 856-7796
Breakfast and Lunch

We can't quite figure out what to call this place, but the former Bookstore Café, long a crowd favorite when it was downtown on King Street, got even better after a move to the strip mall landscape of Mt. Pleasant. Despite the downgrade in location, the food remains tops for a weekend brunch, with huge "Potato Casseroles" smothered in an assortment of delectable accoutrements as well as generous stacks of pancakes, French toast, and a great house-made corned beef hash.

Chez Fish
Seafood
Entrées $10-$!5
Johns Island. 3966 Betsy Kerrison Pkwy. 768-0753
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

This quirky little number way out toward Kiawah and Seabrook serves up some deliciously honest food. A classic French bistro, Chez Fish is worn and weathered, a comfortable space perfect for tucking into a few briny mussels and one of the daily specials -- which undoubtedly will come from the fresh catch being proffered in the seafood market next door. One of the best wine lists and a very competent kitchen make this little place worth every gallon of gas guzzled on the long trip from town.

Cintra Ristorante
Italian
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 16 N. Market St. 377-1090
Dinner

Italian restaurants usually come in two flavors: down-home or dressed-to-the-nines. We find that Cintra strikes a great balance between the two. It offers sophisticated food in a convenient downtown setting and, while the grub sings as stylish a tune as the rest of downtown, the high-energy dining room (replete with an open kitchen) provides a great place to chow on creative creations without the jacket and tie. It's serious food without the serious attitude.

Coast
Seafood
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 39-D John St. 722-8838
Dinner and Sunday Brunch

This is perhaps the hippest place to eat seafood on the peninsula. A wood-fired grill churns out nightly fresh fish specials as inventive cocktails careen through the bustling young professionals gathered around the bar. Live music often warms the bar and drifts into the exotically appointed dining space. With a sharp focus on seafood, the menu dances among genres, serving excellent versions of ceviche, fish tacos, fried crawfish, and Lowcountry classics. Even the obligatory shrimp and grits has some flair. A nice wine list can complement any of the chef's fare, but the mixed drinks, like the "Dark & Stormy" and "Watermelon Cooler," are worth a visit in themselves.

Coco's Café
French
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 863 Houston Northcutt Blvd. 881-4949
Lunch and Dinner

Coco's may have changed ownership recently, but this little strip mall restaurant continues to pump out signature classic French cuisine perfectly true to its roots. The intimate Mt. Pleasant dining room was sold last year by chef/owners Alain Saley and Francois Rivalain to Stephen Ollard, but the original, authentic French menu remains. Coco's also features a wonderful collection of cellared wine specials showcasing some very fine examples of French wine at fair prices. When we need our Gallic fix, we head over to Coco's for the best "Les Escargots De La Bourgogne" in town.

Cru Café
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 18 Pinckney St. 534-2434
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun. and Mon.)

You could go to Cru Café for any number of reasons. Go for the breezy porch, the frenetic dance in the open kitchen during the lunch rush, or the delectably diverse, down-home entrées that trot out the uptown style at dinner; we go for the four-cheese macaroni. It represents more than your average mac and cheese, a huge, gooey mountain of lip-smacking goodness. They call it a side, but it's a meal in itself and worth every delicious fat gram.

A Culinary Art Company
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 375-5988
Dinner

If you thought the circus came to town only once a year, then you've never watched Tim McCusker knock the top off a bottle of champagne with a meat cleaver, arcing it -- cork and all -- over the entire dining room, and then pour a glass of bubbles for your table, which also happens to be a glass cube containing a fully functional, dazzlingly colorful aquarium. The two-person operation, consisting of McCusker and his lovely wife, pumps out some of the most innovative and outlandishly creative tapas-style food in the city, a total confluence of trend-setting scene and futuro-grub that will leave you happy and full for a very reasonable price.

Cypress
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 167 East Bay St. 727-0111
Dinner

This downtown destination has changed over the years, but the architecture alone draws a crowd. What originally premiered as a classic 1960s throwback complete with tableside Caesar salad preparation, lobster Thermidor, and jacket requirements downstairs now infuses a decidedly Asian flavor. Drop in to see the spectacular two-story glass wine "cellar" or sample the splendid selection of single malt scotches at the upstairs bar, but stay for the food. Where else are you going to get seared foie gras with cornbread, peaches, and Tahitian vanilla?

D'Allesandro's
Pizza
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 229 St. Philip St. 853-6337
Lunch, Dinner, and Delivery

This is pizza in the 'hood, up where you might see news reporters chronicling the latest calamity in the Charleston crime wave. They have a great bar, a hot oven, and some of the most respectable pie in town. They deliver the entire menu (excluding beer), including piping hot calzones and some damn good hot wings.

The Dining Room atWoodlands Resort & Inn
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Summerville. 125 Parsons Road. 875-2600
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

The Dining Room at Woodlands can be summed up in one word: perfection. Everything they do here is well thought out, perfectly executed, and still, after all these years, delivers the same exemplary meal that we have come to expect, no matter what's on the menu, which changes daily. Despite its considerable distance from downtown, Woodlands remains a strong contender in the uppermost echelon of the Lowcountry's restaurant scene. New Executive Chef Tarver King clearly understands his role in continuing the past success of this legendary spot while spurring innovation that keeps the menu fresh and engaging.

El Dorado
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 1109 Savannah Hwy. 763-0699
Lunch and Dinner

Every restaurant guide needs to tout a cookie-cutter Mexican-American place. El Dorado makes that job easy. They serve all the standards that you have become accustomed to wolfing down with cold beer or frosty margaritas, but if you go for the weekday lunch, they have a buffet. That's right -- you can score repeated plates of just about everything offered on the regular menu for less than eight bucks. Tostadas, enchiladas, tacos, taquitos, even hot wings and celery sticks for the bubbas. It could make a college kid cry.

El Mercadito
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $10-$15
Johns Island. 3575 Maybank Hwy. 559-7216
Lunch and Dinner

This former taco stand and grocery may have turned into a cliché of a Mexican restaurant, but some of the vestiges of old still remain. We still go for the excellent tacos. Beef cheek, pork, steak, and chorizo sausage -- they're all still there, served on fresh tortillas and accompanied by the fiery sting of chilis.

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ
BBQ/Ribs/Wings
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1205 Ashley River Road. 225-7427
Lunch and Dinner

They may not win any awards for regional authenticity, but Home Team BBQ can put out some damn fine 'cue. These guys slam together influences from across the Americas -- from white mayonnaise-based sauce to ribs so tender you'll swear you've landed in Memphis or Kansas City. The sides are luscious and the atmosphere combines the best in high-definition sports with a weekly revue of great live blues and rock. Welcome to the best smoked pork west of the Ashley. One taste of this stuff and you'll realize why the parking lot is perpetually full.

Fish
Seafood
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 442 King St. 722-FISH
Lunch and Dinner

Fish led the charge in revitalizing the upper King Street district and owners Charles and Celeste Patrick continued to support the cause, resuscitating the American Theater and the William Aiken house in a part of the city that now throbs with energy. Newcomers have produced stiff competition, but Executive Chef Ryan Herrmann continues to dish out exciting food, focusing more than ever on delivering exemplary seafood preparations that showcase the freshest fish available on the market. Don't miss the nightly "naked fish" selection, featuring an impeccable product perfectly cooked and dressed only in a touch of sea salt.

Five Loaves Café
More Than A Sandwich
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 43 Cannon St. 937-4303; 372 King St. (inside Millennium Music). 805-7977; Mt. Pleasant. 1055 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 849-1043
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

This hippy-dippy spot on the corner of Spring and Cannon Streets replaced the venerable old Latasha's Taste of New Orleans a few years back. It took us a while to forgive them, but gentrification is a regrettable fact of life in downtown Charleston. The place has become so successful that they now sport two other locations, one in Millennium Music on King Street and another across the bridge in Mt. Pleasant. We like the original and their daily special, which pairs a host of freshly prepared soups, large salads, and interesting sandwiches -- pick any two for $7.75. That's a deal we like, and judging from the lines, we are not alone.

Gaulart and Maliclet/Fast and French
French
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 98 Broad St. 577-9797
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

Quirky, entertaining, shoulder-to-shoulder, and delicious -- the place with the funny name heads up the Broad Street lunch scene, packing in customers like sardines at the communal tables with just enough room for an Orangina and a crusty baguette between. While the food is not always so authentically French, they serve a good meal at a fair price. If you go for lunch, be prepared to wait -- locals may not be able to pronounce the name, but they line the walls during the midday rush. They have good reason to do so.

George's Sports Bar and Grill
Greek/Mediterranean
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1300 Savannah Hwy. 763-0605
Lunch and Dinner

Georgie the Greek serves up a fantastic array of Greek specials, American bar grub, and a never-ending stream of live sporting events on so many TVs that his power bill must dwarf the food cost. It's not fancy food, it's a low-down, gut-busting, pig-out joint. The "Nachos Humongo" come topped with chili, cheese, jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and salsa; the chili cheese fries will take you back to your last visit to the state fair; the buffalo wings are certified snot-drippers. Big-screen TVs make this the place to kick back for college football and NASCAR races. And if you're a nerd who doesn't like sports, the television trivia network at every table will give you something to do while you wait for your friends.

Grill 225
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 225 E. Bay St. 266-4222
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

Serving some of the finest steaks in town smack in the middle of the Market Street Pavilion Hotel lobby, Grill 225 promises one of the fanciest dinners and consistently delivers just that. From the curbside valet parking (which costs a whopping $10) and the white-jacketed formal dinner service to the three-foot high menus, feasting here will make even the most demure of diners feel like an instant sophisticate. The dark wood interior and starched white tablecloths ooze with the grandeur of a bygone era. Despite the pomp, the minimalist menu focuses on the prime meats themselves, with sauce served on the side and sides served in separate dishes altogether. It is simply some of the finest food in Charleston, and some of the priciest, but worth every penny.

The Hickory Hawg
Barbecue/Ribs
Entrées $5-$10
Johns Island. 2817 Maybank Hwy. 557-1121.
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

The Hickory Hawg, located in a strip mall out on Johns Island, serves Central North Carolina 'cue. Now, that just means "Yankee" to a lot of folks around these parts, but one taste and you may become an instant convert. Chopped meat, an acceptable hash, and an interesting slaw top the list of things to eat here, but the ribs are to die for. Succulent baby backs, slathered with the house sauce -- signature N.C. vinegar and pepper sauce with a touch of tomato -- fall from the bone in gelatinous glory, putting other local rib shacks to shame.

High Cotton
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 199 E. Bay St. 724-3815
Dinner, Saturday Lunch, and Sunday Brunch

High Cotton headlines the Maverick group's offerings downtown as a Southern fried steak and seafood house with a classy edge. Tourists and locals alike flock to the place and make for a difficult reservation, so get your requests in early or you will be hanging at their splendid bar for an eternity. If you get inside, you will not be disappointed. Aside from the crowded environs, High Cotton serves up delicious food in an elegant yet surprisingly comfortable atmosphere.

High Thyme
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
Sullivan's Island. 2213-C Middle St. 883-3536
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

Way out on Sullivan's Island, High Thyme brings creative bistro flair to coastal specialties. With an emphasis on seafood, the kitchen turns out good food at a reasonable prices in a great location. The always boisterous atmosphere and cold white wine make it a perfect place to meet friends for a late nibble after a long day at the beach.

Hominy Grill
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 207 Rutledge Ave. 937-0930
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Weekend Brunch

The greatest thing about Hominy Grill is that, as New York Times writer Richard B. Woodward puts it, "the neighborhood has been up-and-coming for years and still hasn't come up." Hominy does one thing: they serve authentic Southern food and they are the best in South Carolina at doing so. Every morsel comes so perfectly prepared, at such a reasonable price, that one wonders why you would ever go elsewhere for grits ... or shad roe ... or chicken n' a biscuit. If you want to eat true comfort food, then this is the only game in town worth your time.

Il Cortile del Re
Italian
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 193-A King St. 853-1888
Dinner

Il Cortile was pumping out real, homespun Italian cuisine before real, homespun Italian cuisine was cool. They call themselves an enoteca (wine bar), but the food has been the star from day one. Formerly tucked away and hidden in the antique district along lower King Street, expansion onto the streetfront brought increased capacity and a classic bar scene. It may not be the secret gem of bygone days, but it still ranks up there with the many imitators who have followed.

JB's Smokeshack
Barbecue/Ribs
Entrées $5-$10
Johns Island. 3406 Maybank Hwy. 557-0426.
Lunch and Dinner, Closed Mon. & Tues.

Way out on Johns Island, this cute little country shack features both a buffet and a selection of plates for ordering in a cozy little one-room space with plenty of pig paraphernalia adorning the walls. The chopped pork is good, with several sauces featured, but they have won multiple awards in competition for the beef brisket, competently smoked and sliced; it is not featured on the buffet, but worth the extra expense.

Jim 'N Nick's BBQ
Barbecue/Ribs
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 288 King St. 577-0406.
Lunch and Dinner

If you are stuck downtown and need a true barbecue fix, this King Street location serves up an acceptable plate right in the middle of the shopping corridor. It seems that the thousands of women flocking to the shoe stores and designer pocketbook boutiques drag their husbands along, creating a massive demand for quality urban barbecue. The place seems routinely packed, but the service keeps up nicely, the beer always comes cold, and the cheese biscuits are a can't-miss accoutrement.

Jimmy Dengate's
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 5 Cumberland St. 722-1541
Lunch and Dinner

Jimmy Dengate's is an old stand-by for a quick, satisfying weekday lunch. They've got a solid line-up of meats -- meatloaf, fried catfish, fried chicken, etc.-- that you can pair up with a selection of vegetables (mac and cheese, fried okra, mashed potatoes, cole slaw) for the ultimate of Southern "dinners" (that's what we used to call lunch down here in the South). Regular all-you-can-eat specials and cheap prices keep this place packed full of regulars, where you'll often see the mayor and other movers and shakers taking part in a power lunch.

Joseph's Restaurant
More Than A Sandwich
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 129 Meeting St. 958-8500
Breakfast, Lunch, and Sunday Brunch

Joseph's little storefront location next to the Gibbes Museum of Art on Meeting Street serves a delicious assortment of breakfast and lunch specialties, as well as brunch all day on Sundays. From delicious homemade pancakes to creative salads, they dish out big portions of freshly prepared food in the well-appointed dining room and in the splendid outdoor garden during good weather. You will have no trouble finding the place -- just look for the line outside the door.

Joy Luck
Asian/Indian
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1303 Ashley River Road. 573-8899
Lunch and Dinner (closed Mon.)

If you're ordering Chinese take-out from any other location in West Ashley, you're probably getting ripped off. Where most have little puny shrimp in big puffs of bread, they have plump juicy ones in a crispy fried shell. Where you often get heat-lamp preparations that taste as if they are made of cardboard, Joy Luck gives you food so fresh that the brown paper bags they bring it in are soaked with the hot grease. Did we mention that the owner himself often delivers the food or that the family also runs Red Orchids? ...'nuff said.

The Kickin' Chicken
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 337 King St. 805-5020; Mt. Pleasant. 1119 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 881-8734; James Island. 1175 Folly Road. 225-6996; Summerville. 800 N. Main St. 875-6998
Lunch, Dinner, and Late Night

What started as a ghetto lunch delivery outfit has morphed over the years into a veritable sandwich empire in the Holy City -- because these guys make one hell of a sandwich. The signature Kickin' Chicken sandwich is a gut-busting, artery-clogging sub that piles crispy bacon over fried chicken tenders and tops the whole thing with layers of melted cheese. Eating a whole one with a couple beers will send you home for a nap.

La Fourchette
French
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 432 King St. 722-6261
Dinner

Serving the most authentic French fare in town, this tiny upper King Street dining room commands a loyal clientele who return time and again for the lobster bisque, the signature cassoulet, and a great wine list featuring distinctive French regional selections. Always packed and lively, the tight seating and loud conversation exemplify the Parisian ideal. You just might think you have arrived on the left bank of the Seine.

La Norteña
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $5-$10
North Charleston. 1861 Remount Road. 225-7055
Lunch and Dinner

If you have never had a real taco (and chances are you haven't), your first bite into a beef cheek taco at this Remount Road place could change your life. Words can't describe the succulence of the meat, the tenderness of a fresh soft tortilla, or the authentic flavor of real chilis. It also happens to be a butcher shop, so in addition to stuffing yourself with insanely delicious carnitas, burritos, and other dirt-cheap fare, you can take home 10 pounds of tripe, a couple beef tongues, and enough fire in your belly that you will dread the bathroom for days.

La Playita
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $5-$10
Hanahan. 1286 Yeamans Hall Road. 529-0080
Lunch and Dinner (closed Wed.)

Directly across Remount Road from La Norteña, "the little beach" fires up a delicious blend of authentic Mexican flavors and seafood. Specialties include multiple incarnations of the "shrimp cocktail" that are so good you will drink the sauce. Huge platters of grilled octopus and shrimp come anointed with fresh tomatoes, avocado slices, and cheese. They serve all the standards as well, but bring your Spanish; the place is genuine.

Lana
Greek/Mediterranean
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 210 Rutledge Ave. 720-8899
Lunch and Dinner

When our favorite panini place vacated its Cumberland Street address a few years ago, we never dreamed that what was once a perfect little lunch spot in that bourgeois part of town would transform into a formidable fine dining establishment way up in the 'hood. That's exactly what happened, though, to the delight of all who bemoaned its predecessor's passing. Lana presents an adroitly-prepared, contemporary Mediterranean palette of flavors -- French steaks, Italian pastas, Greek lamb, and Spanish tapas all have a place on the diverse menu. With reasonable prices for excellent food and a romantic setting, Lana is one of the best date spots in town.

Langdon's Restaurant and Wine Bar
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 778 South Shelmore Blvd. 388-9200
Lunch (M-F) and Dinner (closed Sun.)

One could drive right past Langdon's Restaurant and never even know it was there. Tucked away in a nondescript BI-LO shopping center, even the sign is hard to see -- but don't let that dissuade you from trying this exceptional menu. They produce truly memorable food and wine -- particularly the lamb chops napped with a jalapeño-mint gastric and a seared tuna that is the best we've ever had. Combine this with a very well-designed wine selection available in multiple pour sizes, featured food pairings, and expert bar service (Riedel glasses are the bomb) and you have yourself some top-notch stuff that's worth fighting the traffic for.

Laura Albert's Tasteful Options
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
Daniel Island. 819 Island Park Dr. 881-4711
Lunch

"Mama" Rose Durden, who made her name at Carolina's, is back in action at this trendy little lunch café out in Daniel Island. They serve delectable crab cakes, spreads, sandwiches, salads, and reinterpreted American classics like a deconstructed chicken pot pie. In addition to the food, the operation offers a quality selection of wines, a weekly dinner to go, and in-house catering service for private dinner celebrations. We can only hope that they ultimately expand into a full dinner service, 'cause "Mama Rose" sure can cook.

Long Point Grill
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 479 Long Point Road. 884-3101
Lunch and Dinner

Sal Parco's newest project, situated just outside the edge of the industrial port operation at the end of its namesake street, offers a delicious option for both weeknight drop-ins and weekend splurges. They excel at producing delicious stick-to-your-ribs fare with a creative twist at a price that allows the entire family to tag along. All of this comes with great service in a welcoming casual atmosphere without the slightest pretense. Take your mother-in-law and the persnickety old gramps -- hell, take the dog and leave him in the car. The generously oversized portions will leave plenty for the pooch as well.

Madra Rua
Pubs/Taverns
Entrées $5-$10
North Charleston. 1034 E. Montague Ave. 554-2522
Lunch, Dinner, and Late Night

Hands down, this is the best Irish pub in town. Hidden up in the Park Circle area of North Chuck, Madra Rua got ahead of the Noisette curve and has led the way ever since. Comprehensive soccer coverage, some very tasty fish and chips, and the only shepherd's pie in town worth eating make this the ideal location to suck down a pint or two while watching all the exciting World Cup action. Of course, the World Cup will not be back for another three years, but we're sure there'll be plenty of other games in the meantime.

Magnolias
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 185 E. Bay St. 577-7771
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

A leading light from the old days, Magnolias has gone the way of the tourist throng, but locals who brave the crowds or sneak in during the dead of winter can be rewarded with quality interpretations of Southern cuisine. It seems that all those tourist dollars have not totally relegated the kitchen to churning out mediocre fare in high volume. We particularly like the fresh, handmade potato chips that come blanketed in an aged blue cheese. Take note, guys: on a cool autumn day with a glass of decent wine, these beauties make the downtown shopping trip bearable.

Momma Brown's
Barbecue/Ribs
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 1471 Ben Sawyer Blvd. 849-8802.
Lunch and Dinner

This mainstay of Mt. Pleasant has such a loyal following that people drive from West Ashley to eat lunch at the packed tables that line the buffet steam bar. Serving authentic Pee Dee/Eastern North Carolina vinegar and pepper on some very good hog, the team at Momma Brown's sticks to tradition and serves up the real thing. It's no wonder, since they are part of the ancestral lineage of Browns that made the Kingstree area famous for slow-cooked pork. If you're looking for old-style country barbecue with a spicy tang, then this is your next stop.

Manny's
Greek/Mediterranean
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1680 Old Towne Road. 763-3908
Lunch, Dinner, and Late Night

Everybody loves Manny's. They have great Greek-American stick-to-your-ribs type fare mixed with American and Italian-American standards that, in all their greasy glory, express what a true neighborhood joint should be all about. You don't go there to be impressed with the wine list or to watch beautiful people. You show up expecting cold beer, good times, and some excellent, satisfying grub.

Marie Laveau's
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 9 Magnolia Road. 766-7837.
Breakfast (Tu-F), Lunch (Tu-F), Dinner, and Weekend Brunch (closed Mon.)

The crazy mixed-up scene inside this Avondale favorite is as exciting as its food, a well-made assortment of reinterpreted Creole and Cajun standards that will have you jonesing for the bayou. They recently opened for dinner and, although we haven't been around at night just yet, the grapevine brings positive news. With Voodoo next door under the same owners, you can spend an entire evening with hot lips and cold drinks and never leave the sidewalk.

Martha Lou's Kitchen
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 1068 Morrison Dr. 577-9583
Breakfast and Lunch

We still get up on Sundays and cry sometimes because Alice's Fine Foods no longer graces the soul food kingdom. But when we need our greasy chicken fix, Martha Lou's comes to the rescue. For years, she's been serving some fine, tasty chicken right out of the skillet, and tea so sweet it would become rock candy if you left it in the sun. Finding it is easy. Head up East Bay Street until you see Martha Lou's plastered in blue across a bright pink cinderblock building and hear the melodies of African-American church gospel. The stuff's so good you'll wanna slap yo' mamma.

Mellow Mushroom
Pizza
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 309 King St. 723-7374
Lunch and Dinner

Mellow Mushroom is an amusement park of pizza with a huge oven in the back, an expanded bar area upstairs, plenty of beer, and a menu of sandwiches that will satisfy just about anyone. The creative assortment of toppings makes pizza new again, and the crispy whole wheat crust underneath provides a delicious base for it all. Whether you keep it simple with pepperoni or get fancy with pesto, Mellow Mushroom will put it in the oven for you.

Mercato
Italian
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 102 N. Market St. 722-6393
Dinner and Late Night

If you want to experience what must be considered the most beautiful dining space in the city of Charleston, Mercato is your next stop. The latest jewel in the burgeoning Hank Holliday empire, the previous space underwent an extraordinary renovation at great expense and tapped the considerable talents of Chef Jacques Larson, who excelled at Cintra before moving out for the glitz and glamour of the big lights and then returning. The bar is second to none, and the gnocco, a hot semolina porridge topped with molten cheese, is perhaps the best late night tummy-filler in town. Rumor has it that Larson's time spent in the company of Mario Batali has also yielded a developing interest in charcuterie and, while not yet on the menu at Mercato, we can still hope for some tasty house-cured meats in the future.

Mia's Café
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 3669 Savannah Hwy. 769-7433
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

People make a pilgrimage to this location down Highway 17 every Sunday for the best brunch deal in town. Fresh raw oysters, crab legs, roasted legs of lamb, hams, and did we mention a chocolate fountain with fresh strawberries? As if that weren't enough, they offer a very good "soul food" lunch daily and at night turn into a respectable French bistro with incredible value and handmade food. Mia's is a winner in more ways than one.

Moe's Crosstown Tavern
Pubs/Taverns
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 714 Rutledge Ave. 722-EATS
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

Moe's serves the best bar food in town. In fact, it's so good that we shouldn't even call it bar food. Burgers, wings, and appetizers reach new levels at this bona fide 'hood location. You don't have to have your own key to get in the door anymore, and that's a good thing, because on a busy night the door will barely budge for all the people gathered there. The goat cheese and poblano burger and hand-cut French fries are to die for and the wings (served "Moe Hotter") will make you cry.

Mondo's Delite
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
James Island. 915 Folly Road. 795-8400
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

This shopping center bistro, tucked behind the endless chain establishments of Folly Road, has been serving some of the best value cuisine on the west side of Charleston for years. Fresh, homemade breads and great pasta dishes make it a weeknight favorite, and one that won't break the bank -- a solid choice when you just need to eat something good.

The Mustard Seed
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $10-$15
James Island. 1978 Maybank Hwy. 762-0072; Mt. Pleasant. 1026 Chuck Dawley Blvd. 849-0050; Summerville. 101 N. Main St. 821-7101
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

Just like real mustard seeds, Sal Parco's health-conscious yet delicious offerings have sprouted throughout the greater metro area, reaching all the way to Summerville. With a menu that can appease both meat eaters and vegetarians without breaking the bank, the casual atmosphere and relaxed service make The Mustard Seed an excellent choice for a quick lunch or a weekday dinner no matter what side of town you happen to inhabit.

Oak Steakhouse
Steakhouse
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 17 Broad St. 722-4220
Dinner

We have learned here at the City Paper that executive chef/owner Brett McKee commands one of the most dedicated followings in the city. His patrons, it seems, come not only for the exemplary food (the espresso-rubbed prime steaks are absolutely divine), but also to support a man who raises mountains of cash for aid organizations and community causes. Attend any charitable event in town and you are likely to sample some of the Oak Steakhouse's great grub. From his signature lobster-laced mac 'n' cheese to a meltingly tender veal osso buco, Oak delivers the goods in style.

The Ocean Room
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Kiawah Island. 1 Sanctuary Dr. 768-6000
Dinner

The centerpiece of Kiawah Island's newest extravaganza, The Sanctuary, The Ocean Room portrays all of the grandeur one has come to expect on the resort isle and comes with a price to match. Staid surroundings envelop you in luxury as servants attend to your every need; jackets are required for men, and opulent food and wine grace the tables. As the old commercial goes; if you like The Woodlands, you're going to love The Ocean Room.

The Old Village Post House
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $15-$20
Mt. Pleasant. 101 Pitt St. 388-8935
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

Tucked away among the quaint homes and friendly streets of Mt Pleasant's most livable neighborhood, the Post House anchors the historic commercial strip of the Old Village. Set inside a charming wood frame structure that also houses a top-flight inn, the small dining room showcases some of the best food that the Maverick restaurant group puts out. New chef Tim Armstrong continues to improve an already outstanding establishment, focusing on creative interpretations of local favorites with a contemporary style.

Olympik Restaurant
Greek/Mediterranean
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 1922 Savannah Hwy. 556-9359
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

This little spot down Highway 17 in West Ashley serves good Greek food at a great price. They have all the standard items, with some really good tzatziki and a small shop where you can take home authentic imported Greek foods. Family-owned and run, they serve a great quick lunch or a weeknight dinner without breaking the bank.

Osaka
Asian/Indian
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 100 Folly Road. 852-9979
Lunch and Dinner

Serving our favorite sushi west of the Ashley, Osaka has come back from a devastating fire (seems that someone got a little too happy on the hibachi grill) with a vengeance. They 86'd the fancy flair of the grills and went whole hog on the sushi side. If you get the extra-large sushi platter, your order sails out in a humongous wooden boat; it's worth the trip just to see the look on the other diners' faces when they realize you're the only one eating at your table.

Pa Pa Zu Zu's
Greek/Mediterranean
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 370 King St. 534-1666
Lunch and Dinner

This may well be the tiniest downtown restaurant ever to serve such great food. Ultra-fresh veggies, thick garlicky yogurt sauces, and creamy hummus show up next to "gyros as big as your head." The Greek salad is so big, fresh, and crunchy you can graze on it for days. Take-out is the best way to go, especially on a spring day with Marion Square just a hundred yards away.

Pane e Vino
Italian
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 17 Warren St. 853-5955
Lunch (Fri. and Sat. only) and Dinner(closed Sun.)

If you think Al di La has the market cornered on affordable Italian classics and great wine values, you need to head over to Pane e Vino. This delightful café, which really has no sign to speak of, offers a diverse selection of cured meats, cheeses, antipasti, and entrées, all in the truest expression of a classic Italian trattoria. Live jazz and a romantic outdoor seating area make it a hidden favorite of the upper King corridor and a place that no self-respecting Italophile should miss.

Pavilion Bar
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 225 E. Bay St. 266-4218
Lunch and Dinner

This swank open-air diva dresses up the rooftop of the Market Pavilion hotel with an extravagance that makes it a destination for any serious downtown bar crawler. Winter heaters, glass windbreaks, sun-shading umbrellas, and one of the coolest swimming pools we've ever seen make it a prime beautiful people-watching perch. The drinks are expensive, the food excellent, and the atmosphere so South Beach/Miami Vice that you expect to see Crockett and Tubbs sprint by and tackle some dude into the pool at any moment. While watching the cavorting flesh stroll past, one can nibble on an equally erotic assortment of tuna tartare, deep fried lobster tails, duck confit over nachos, Kobe beef burgers, or our favorite, the "Lobster Thermidor and Portobello Pizza."

Pearlz
Seafood
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 153 E. Bay St. 577-5755
Lunch and Dinner

Pearlz is the best little raw bar that you probably haven't even been to yet. An abundant daily selection of fresh mollusks graces the chalkboard, shucked before your eyes and served up with your choice of cold beverage, from champagne to beer. It's a great place to stop in for a bite before hitting the town or for ending a bit of carousing when the late night munchies attack.

Peninsula Grill
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 112 N. Market St. 723-0700
Dinner

They may not have been the first high-style "grill" to open in the market area, but they are certainly one of the best. Chef Robert Carter headlines this delicious Southern belle with creative dishes that sing from the plate. Lowcountry influences intertwine with contemporary preparations in a symphony of flavors that lead flawlessly from arrival to dessert. Start at the champagne bar (which serves six selections by the glass); perhaps indulge in a few oysters, a tartare dish, or one of the most scrumptious foie gras plates in the city. Move on to your table, where the signature "Wild Mushroom Grits," still amazing in a town overrun with coarse ground hominy, can start the meal; order up the creative lamb chops encrusted with sesame seeds, known by the West African moniker "benne seed" in the vicinity of the market. We sometimes stop by just to have the now famous coconut cake, which, after being featured in the national media numerous times, is a mail order extravaganza -- and it really is that good. At 12 pounds per cake, these monstrosities will set you back a couple inches in the waist but are worth every indulgent bite. Peninsula does not lay claim to the most expensive, extravagant, or formal tables in town, but they do enjoy one all important categorization -- they are simply one of the best.

Pho Bac
Asian/Indian
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 849-6752
Lunch and Dinner

The untimely demise of Binh Mihn last year left us gasping for our cheap East Asian fix and just when we thought the strip mall spring roll was dead, along came this beauty, serving acceptable rolls, the occasional sushi plate, and the best Pho Bac (that's Vietnamese beef noodle soup, for those out of the loop) in town. Owner Tom Phan takes a personal interest in each steaming bowl that leaves the joint, laboring over the long-simmered broths and thinly sliced accoutrements (chicken, shrimp, beef, and even meatballs) for inordinate amounts of time. You may have to wait a while for your grub, but some things are worth the time they take.

Poe's Tavern
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $5-$10
Sullivan's Island. 2210 Middle St. 883-0083
Lunch and Dinner

We tried to count the number of references to Edgar Allan Poe at this eponymous beach bar on Sullivan's and gave up after two beers. No matter the time of day, this is the perfect place to weather that freak thunderstorm that ruins your beach excursion. You can sit inside, out on the patio, or on the porch -- either way the beer is cold and the respectable pub food can quell a grumbling belly. Chips with guacamole and a killer soft-shell crab sandwich top the list of good eats at this island institution.

Raval
Tapas
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 453 King St. 853-8466
Dinner

Raval's quixotic nature makes it immensely compelling, but the Spanish-style tapas and great wine list are what keep this place on the top of our list. Two rooms, aligned in shotgun style, play host to some of the most unique offerings on upper King Street. The front window frames the kitchen and a splendid bar while the rear space transports visitors into a couch-laden fantasy, complete with a thumping DJ on the weekends.

Red Drum Gastropub
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $15-$20
Mt. Pleasant. 803 Coleman Blvd. 849-0313
Dinner

Need a great meal after work in Mt. P., a place to take the office out for crowd-pleasing drinks and dinner? This is your place. The Gastropub serves up a delicious blend of Southwestern-inspired cuisine, microbrews, and classic French bistro fare in a gorgeous, laid-back atmosphere. It is a synergy that has wowed a plethora of regulars who now inhabit the bar, swilling killer margaritas and munching on Chef/Owner Ben Berryhill's awesome chicken enchiladas with red mole and some of the best ceviche that we have ever tasted; if you are lucky, you will get to eat it all in the cozy little wine cave. It dresses down like a pub, but serves fine cuisine like a grande dame of the restaurant scene -- hence the moniker Gastropub. We don't really care what they call it -- it's just plain good.

Red Orchids
Asian/Indian
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 1401 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. 573-8787
Lunch (Mon.-Sat.) and Dinner

Ask for Tony, the proprietor, and prepare yourself for a sake adventure. No other location in Charleston can produce the knowledge of its history, off-the-cuff tasting notes, and free samples. Sure, it's technically a Chinese restaurant, but you won't want to do take-out. You sit down here and you eat well for a great price. Of course, ordering is easy. The crispy fried red snapper served with a spicy sweet and sour pepper sauce is one of the best dishes to be found in the city at any price -- and one order will serve two people. By the second flask of sake, little details like ordering won't matter too much anyway.

Robert's of Charleston
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 182 East Bay St. 577-7565
Dinner (Wed.-Sat. only)

If you had to pick one "legendary" restaurant in downtown Charleston, it would be Robert's. Still going strong after 30 years, the small, intimate dining room has witnessed countless birthdays, engagements, and anniversaries -- it's the original "special occasion" place. Robert's still packs them in for live show tunes and opera every night and with Robert's daughter MariElena and her husband Joseph Raya now running the show, Robert is free to perform better than ever. Wine pairings have branched out to embrace some of the best emerging regions in the world, and the five-course prix fixe menu has achieved a new level of accomplishment. If you have not been in years, it's time to rediscover this old standby on East Bay Street.

Santi's
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 1302 Meeting St. 722-2633
Lunch and Dinner

Fresh, delicious, and fast. Santi's has won over a legion of downtown lunch fans with reasonable prices, authentic fare, and friendly waiters. The open kitchen area of the old Huddle House space bustles as Santi and staff prepare fat burritos stuffed full of cheese, beans, beef, and whatever else you want crammed in there. The enchiladas verdes are the best around and Santi's mole sauce is scrumptious.

Sesame
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Entrées $5-$10
North Charleston. 4726 Spruill Ave.554-4903
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

From the owners of Five Loaves Café comes this out-of-the-way roadside hamburger joint. Fearlessly plopped down off Spruill Avenue -- a bold wager on the success of the Noisette project -- Sesame blows most visitors away, because most people have never had a handmade hamburger before. Sure, you may have patted down a pound or two of meat in your life, but we're talking house-made buns, ketchup, mustard, mayo, relishes, even pimiento cheese -- the whole nine yards. Fresh ground meat means that you can get yours cooked as bloody as you like, kind of like Southern tartare with white bread. Yum.

Shi Ki
Asian/Indian
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 334 East Bay St. 720-8568
Lunch and Dinner

This little downtown Japanese sushi house is tucked away beside the Eckerd on East Bay Street. The sushi is excellent, but we go mainly for the fat selection of noodles -- plump udon noodles that come surrounded by tempura-fried seafood, vegetables, and some delicious dashi broth creations. Traditional Japanese tempura appetizers are also good, and with enough non-sushi fare to make ordering easy for the sushi-averse, you can get your raw fish fix even when your landlubbing relatives are in town.

Sienna
Italian
Entrées $15-$20
Daniel Island. 901 Island Park Dr. 881-8820
Lunch (M-F) and Dinner (closed Sun.)

Who would've thought the culinary mastermind behind the original diamonds and stars at The Woodlands could go out and open an even better establishment -- by returning to his grandma's Italian roots -- in suburban Daniel Island, of all places? Well, it happened, and Sienna continues to dazzle diners with wonderful food. Ken Vedrinski's robust talent can best be sampled with the chef's "Ultimate Tasting," a $100-plus extravaganza pairing seven courses with wine in a gut-busting adventure through a culinary wonderland that features rare ingredients from around the world.

Six Tables
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Mt. Pleasant. Belle Hall Shopping Center. 664-G Long Point Road. 971-8850
Dinner

Sequestered away from the din of the Boone Halle Shopping Center in Mt. Pleasant, Six Tables presents a surreal environment in which to sample Chef Colin Flynn's excellent food; he's a local boy whose travel and training in France was worth every penny. Outrageously authentic French preparations come served in a rococo space worthy of a medieval château. The prix fixe, multiple-course menu includes a prelude of champagne and an encore of inventive sorbets and lavishly rich desserts, resulting in a perfect "special occasion" place.

Slightly North of Broad
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 192 East Bay St. 723-3424
Lunch (Mon.-Fri. only) and Dinner

S.N.O.B., as it is affectionately known, still produces a steady, reliable stream of classic food from its open kitchen. While the new guys on the block in the East Bay corridor have stolen some of its former glory, S.N.O.B. can still be counted on for a dependable quality lunch or dinner in a charming atmosphere. Chef Frank Lee is a downtown institution and his interpretive Southern fare explores interesting textures and combinations of flavor while remaining true to the culinary traditions of the Lowcountry.

St. Johns Island Café
Southern/Lowcountry
Entrées $10-$15
Johns Island. 3140 Maybank Hwy. 559-9090
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

An out-of-the-way spot that isn't quite so out of the way anymore, the St. Johns Island Café serves a respectable lunch and dinner, with people driving from far away to partake of the contemporary bistro fare that comes from this competent kitchen. A nice complement of homemade desserts rounds out the offerings here, but do not miss the "Fish on Fridays," a Catholic special featuring fried tilapia that all denominations are sure to enjoy.

Sticky Fingers
Barbecue/Ribs
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 341 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. 856-7427; Downtown. 235 Meeting St. 853-7427; Summerville. 1200 N. Main St. 871-7427; North Charleston. 7690 Northwoods Blvd. 797-7427.
Lunch and Dinner

Three guys, post-college bums by their own account, decide to create a rib joint in Mt. P, expand into Summerville and the heart of the historic district, and then get some college friends to open franchises in a budding empire that stretches across five states. It sounds like a recipe for disaster in the ultra-competitive world of Charleston cuisine but is exactly how Sticky Fingers got its start. Now a successful franchise chain, with even more corporate expansion on the horizon, these local transplants have gone national to bring their fine ribs and barbecue to the rest of the country -- spreading Memphis-style pork, with Lowcountry flair, across the land.

Sushi Hiro
Asian/Indian
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 298 King St. 723-3628
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

From the friendly banter of the sushi chefs to the diversity of the impeccably fresh catch, the "Hiro" is the place for raw fish. Traditional Japanese décor and a very convenient location in the heart of King Street make it a great meet-up spot or simply a perch from which to watch passersby from a front window table while enjoying any number of creative, signature makizushi rolls and expertly prepared Edo style nigiri-zushi. When in season, the ultra fatty "Toro" tuna, a rare and expensive cut from the underbelly of the fish, should not be missed.

Taco Boy
Mexican/Southwestern
Entrées $10-$15
Folly Beach. 15 Center St. 588-9761
Lunch and Dinner

The latest addition to the Folly Beach beer-swilling scene, this bar-cum-Mexican taco stand offers a great selection of semi-authentic Mexican-American grub and perhaps the coolest bar scene on the beach. After a long day of sand and sun, one can load up on fresh corn tortillas with a variety of fillings -- and of course, you'll need plenty of bitingly sharp margaritas to wash all that flavor down.

Taste of India
Asian/Indian
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 851 Savannah Hwy. 556-0772
Lunch and Dinner

Tucked away in a nondescript brown building a few yards from the Coburg cow sits the Lowcountry's best passport to Northern India. Taste of India's freshly-prepared daily lunch buffet (it offers menu service at both meals) can serve as a wonderful introduction to curries, biryanies, mutters, and naans (breads) for Indian cuisine neophytes. Brunch on Sundays features some Southern Indian specialties, too, like the potato-filled pancake dosa made from scratch right in front of you. Several international and domestic beers are served, if the mango lhasa isn't enough to put you into a Ghandi-like trance.

Ted's Butcherblock
Gourmet Groceries/Wine Shops
Entrées $5-$10
Downtown. 334 East Bay St. 577-0094
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

A hybrid of sorts, Ted's stated mission is to provide the best ingredients for those who love to cook and gourmet fare for those who lack the time (or skill). In this they excel, proving that they are far from your standard neighborhood butcher. In one trip to the butcherblock you can pick up a "Kobe"-style (Wagyu) beef ribeye, some 8-year-old farmhouse cheddar, a great bottle of red wine, fresh kielbasa for the grill, aged gouda mac and cheese, and a whole smoked duck, ready to eat. They also have fresh salads made to order and a selection of side dishes and entrées that showcase a different world food region each month. Remember your wallet, because they're not giving anything away, but the duck is one of the best things we've ever tasted.

Tristan
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 55 S. Market St. 534-2155.
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

There are two good reasons to go to Tristan: Chef Ciarán Duffy's lamb ribs with chocolate sauce and the Tomahawk ribeye. They represent two of the most astounding dishes in the entire city, the ribs for their delectably creative composition and falling-off-the-bone texture, and the chop for its outlandish size, sizzling crust, quality flavor, and super-size "frenched" bone. After you have stuffed yourself with several pounds of beef and lamb, you might try some vegetables or such -- we hear they're delicious as well...

Vickery's
Caribbean/Cuban
Entrées $10-$15
Downtown. 15 Beaufain St. 577-5300; Mt. Pleasant. 1313 Shrimp Boat Lane. 884-4440
Lunch, Dinner, and Sunday Brunch

You can never go too far wrong with a trip to Vickery's. Black bean cakes and the turkey and brie sandwich are favorites for lighter diners, and there are plenty of burgers and fried stuff for those interested in junk-food snacking. It's one of the few places to dine outside in the shade downtown, and the Shem Creek location has a gorgeous view of the water.

West Ashley Bait& Tackle
Pubs/Taverns
Entrées $5-$10
West Ashley. 1117 Magnolia Road. 556-1828
Lunch and Dinner

The best-kept secret in West Ashley has been operating for years, but most of the patrons were missing a tooth or two. New ownership transformed the B&T into a funky, laid-back bluegrass bar with live music on the weekends, a great home-spun menu, and a smoke-free interior that even families can enjoy. The chef is from Wisconsin and blends crazy good Southern fried food with a cheese fetish that results in some lethal grub. Fried fish baskets and outstanding burgers top the list of things that one must order when visiting, but it ain't fancy. It still has plenty of that grungy, down-home character, but you can now feel safe walking through the front door.

Your Place
More Than A Sandwich
Entrées $5-$10
Mt. Pleasant. 217 Lucas St. 388-8002
Lunch and Dinner (closed Sun.)

This is Your Place, once the greatest hamburger joint in the entire world, has moved across the river to inhabit the environs of Shem Creek. Ownership has changed hands, and while the burgers may not ever be the same without leaving their indelible fragrance embossed into your clothes, they are still some of the best in town. To the chagrin of purists like myself, the once grungy lunch counter menu, pumped solely from the weathered surface of a single consecrated griddle, now features steamed seafood on select occasions; I'm perfectly certain that it is absolutely delicious, but I still cannot bring myself to eat a crab leg at this hallowed altar of grease.

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